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6 things I learnt about the drug scene
Invaluable DrugWise report on most recent trends in drug use and dealing in the UK at the end of 2016. Unprecedented purity levels & the fallout from ban on NPS

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Highways and buyways

I’m delighted to be able to post about a new (7 February 2017) DrugWise publication giving a snapshot of UK drug scenes at the end of 2016. Delighted because, like many people in the drugs field, I had come to rely on the annual DrugScope surveys which ran from 2004-14 until the organisation folded.

However, thanks to old hands Harry Shapiro (@shapiroharry) and Max Daly (@narcomania), we have up-to-date information based on input from drug workers and police officers, researches and trainers.

Highways and buyways (sic): A snapshot of UK drug scenes 2016 highlights six key findings which I summarise below.

1: Unprecedented purity of street drugs

The heroin drought of 2010 resulted for a while in low grade substance on the streets, often cut with paracetamol and caffeine and purity levels averaging out in the mid-teens to low twenty per cent. By 2014, this had climbed in some areas to 40% while today, purity levels at 60% are being quoted. Triangulating data from three forensic laboratories reveals an average UK purity for heroin at 43%.

The reasons for this may include:

  • Users started voting with their feet in protest at the poor quality heroin on offer and this prompted dealers to up their game given how much competition there is in the marketplace to attract a customer base which by contrast is diminishing and not being replaced in significant numbers.
  • Supplying adulterants to traffickers had become big business in itself and was attracting too much attention. Consequently importers were more reluctant to go to the trouble and expense of breaking up well compacted heroin consignments in order to adulterate them and this had helped push up purity levels, although another factor here could be the fall in the price of kilo weights of heroin down below £30k thus enabling profits to be maintained. Even here there seems to be a quid pro quo in operation: the standard £10 bag remains ubiquitous, but the weight often is reduced from 0.2 grams to 0.1 grams.

2: County/Country lines drug distribution system

These terms describe the scenario where a gang from one of the major inner city drug hubs like London, Liverpool and Birmingham, move into an area and take over the dealing network. Again various suggestions have been posited as to the reasons behind this development including the increasing levels of violence associated with greater competition in the large metropolitan areas and simple opportunism combined with local law enforcement who might, as one officer put it, be ‘less cute’ as to what was going on than their urban counterparts.

While dealers from large cities have already operated outside their territory, they used to sell large quantities to higher level dealers in other areas. The county lines approach is to take over street-level dealing in a different area with all the intimidation and violence which that implies.

3: Synthetic cannabis

The report finds that the Psychoactive Substances Act achieved its primary objective of closing down high street retail outlets for Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) but with the consequence that Spice (the main street name for synthetic cannabis) has now become just another street drug. In some areas, heroin and crack dealers have added Spice to their inventory. The new approach is putting vulnerable groups at risk as rough sleeping numbers increase.

Prices seem to vary enormously with £30-£60 a gram being quoted in central London up to £80 in the West Midlands, but down to £10 a gram in Leeds (two bags for £15) and a similar price among the hostel/homeless community in Manchester. (Prison prices are, of course, higher.)

4: The Spice/heroin dynamic

There have been media reports suggesting that dealers were spiking spice with heroin to get users addicted. This was viewed with some scepticism by experts, but the DrugWise survey revealed that in at least four areas, young people have been reported as using heroin to self medicate from the effects of spice.

5: More people seeking help for cannabis use

The survey reports a trend towards people growing their own cannabis rather than becoming involved with dealers, while others grow on a small scale, for example turning over one room in a house in exchange for payment. Those involved in larger commercial enterprises are now just as likely to be white British as Vietnamese, with some forces to the south of the UK saying they don’t see Vietnamese criminals much if at all these days.

In line with official treatment data, several treatment workers reported increases in those coming forward with cannabis as a primary drug problem; the survey includes a number of comments similar to this one:

We have an adult cannabis group and there are a lot of mental health issues involved, particularly among cannabis users who started using in their early teens. Most of the 18-25 year olds we get in for cannabis started between 13-17. We have about 130 people (under 18s + 18-25s) in our service for cannabis. Cannabis makes up 70% of people in our tier 3 core drug service. [London]

6: Over the counter/prescription drugs

In addition to the increasingly common use of pregabalin and gabapentin amongst heroin users, the survey also reports examples of the recreational use of prescription and OTC drugs by young people latching onto US imported drug fashions. In Southwark and Kent, drug workers say they are seeing a rise in teenagers drinking Dirty Sprites (also known as Lean, Sizzurp and Drank) which is codeine, usually in the form of cough syrup, mixed with a soft drink eg Sprite lemonade. Teenagers are taking the drink as a party aid, despite its non-stimulant qualities. The drink is linked with rap and hip hop culture, social media, and mentioned by celebrities in songs.

Other areas reported increases in the use of the benzodiazepine Xanax which is, again, linked to celebrity culture and rap music in the US.


The subject of drugs is probably more vulnerable to misinformation than any other so it is a great comfort and joy to once again have an evidence-based assessment of the latest drug trends in the UK.

Chapeaux to Harry and Max.

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